By Darren Eng
As a scientist, I keep rediscovering that I experience the world from a skewed perspective. For me it’s a world of intermittent certainties scattered about a landscape of partially answered questions and an assortment of quests to answer them. It’s a world in which not a single aspect escapes the influence of evolution in its many forms. Often the evolution is so slow, like gradual erosion along a rocky riverbank, we’re fooled into certainty. The rock underfoot feels certain and solid, yet is slowly being worn by rushing waters and winds. Other times evolution is a landslide of disruptive change. That seemingly solid rock suddenly gives-way and the river carves a new path.
Thus is the challenge of investing and in no other industry is this more evident than in Clean Tech. What could be more exciting? This article is an introductory exploration of what I see are the top evolving Clean Tech trends midway through 2015: energy storage, a solar revival, and waste diversion/conversion.
Energy Storage: A Rock Has Broken Free
Let’s start with the biggest recent news, first. Tim Cook may have successfully stepped into Steve Job’s place as CEO of Apple, but the person walking in Job’s shoes inspiring the masses with innovative thinking and new “must have” products is Elon Musk. Could Tesla be the new Apple (at least for those who can afford their products)? Musk recently announced the launch of the Powerwall, a new product line of “home battery storage” (there’s a commercial version too).
For the many reviews of the Powerwall’s specifications discussing what it can and can’t do just “google” it or check your social media “news feed”. Let’s ask instead what it “means” to the clean tech sector: the answer is A LOT. Much like Sony’s Walkman launched a whole industry of on-the-go personal music, the Powerwall will finally establish an industry of home (aka localized) energy storage. The iPod of this space is yet to come, and will likely come from the world of current startups and microcaps. And from that pool the iPhone of the space will follow, along with a myriad other smartphones.
This is just the beginning, both conceptually and actually, of a whole new industry. Five years from now we’ll have our choice of size (dimensions, power consumption), application (residential, commercial, rural, urban, on-grid, off-grid), and aesthetic (commercial, practical, artistically designed status symbol). In the interim, starting now, there will be a lot of great bets to place.
Solar: The Multi-hill Flume Ride
Much like personal music devices and the subsequent smart phone proliferation spawned a whole plethora of accessories – from cases to mounts, specialty lenses to head phones, backup-batteries to wearables – so too will the Powerwall and other energy storage devices. Already, “solar” is the first and most obvious pairing Musk highlighted. Solar has seen a variety of ups-and-downs as adoption rates and its various technologies have evolved. Recently solar seemed stalled on a steady slow climb. But a proliferation of affordable storage devices, like the Powerwall, greatly improves the economics and the practicality of “going solar” – especially in areas with either high amounts of sunlight or large variations in peak vs off-peak electricity rates (natural gas prices may play a role too).
More than solar, a whole suite of other tech will be soon to follow. Consider other forms of small scale localized energy generation like wind, hydro, anaerobic digestion, and geothermal. And then there’s software and specialty hardware that controls and manages the distribution of the energy being stored and consumed to maximize efficiency in both directions. Plus, don’t forget the service providers and installers for all this new tech. While we are likely to see an evolution of the current A/V and home tech installers, expect a few new kids on the block who specialize in energy efficiency and “greening” the home or office to take off. Some of those already exist.
Food Waste: A Loose Rock Underfoot
So what is the next rock to come loose? In two words: food waste. Yes, that’s right. Food waste.
The developed world takes food for granted. In big cities, in mid-sized cities, even in most USDA designated “Rural Areas”, virtually ANY food product we desire is sitting in a store within a 20-minute drive waiting to be purchased. In most cases its looks perfect too. To accomplish this miracle…the US produces more than four times what it consumes. Globally over 1/3 of all food produced is wasted.
Historically most food waste has gone to landfills – a problem because of methane and other emissions produced. Only recently have we started diverting a portion of food waste away from landfills. With many cities, counties and even whole states (VT, CT, MA) now banning commercial food waste from their landfills, expect to see even more to come. My sources suggest food waste may be on political legacy radars too (note the recent executive order requiring 50% reduction in landfill wastes from all federal facilities). With all the new regulations, the costs associated with food waste are rising.
So where are the opportunities? Consider the entire food supply chain, from crops to kitchens and remember the three R’s. Reduce: For example, farmers use scanners on UAVs (aka drones) to obtain realtime crop health data thus decreasing crop loss. Reuse: A sophisticated collection service for bakery waste supplies the pet food industry. Recycle: Because there will always be wastes generated, a host of “conversion” solutions abound ranging from in-home composting systems, to in-restaurant units converting wastes into biochar, to municipal organic waste pelletization, to biofuel production, to anaerobic digestion, to old school composting. The winners in this vast market will be solutions that economically balance the costs of capital expense, transportation, and conversion process with output product values.
In future articles I’ll pose more in depth questions to consider when evaluating particular clean tech sectors. In the meantime, enjoy the ride.
Bio: Darren Eng is Chief Executive Officer and President of Greenbelt Resources Corporation. Prior to his appointment to CEO, Eng served as a Board Director starting in December 2008, and performed the role of Secretary for the Board from April 2009 to September 2009.
Eng has over 20 years of experience in executive leadership roles and entrepreneurial endeavors. As founder and President of The Sponsorship Group, he has been titled Executive Director or Senior Vice President of a number of professional organizations operated and managed by The Sponsorship Group staff. Other past senior management positions include Operational Director of Los Angeles Venture Association and Executive Vice President of the Digital Evolution Center. Prior to running various upstart companies and organizations throughout Southern California, Eng worked for nearly a decade in the environmental industry. From 1994 to 1998, he led teams of scientists and engineers at AECOM (formerly ENSR) as a project and team manager and served as a level III associate scientist. His work included regulatory compliance and liability assessments of Southern Natural Gas facilities and other large bank-financed industrial properties in the eastern U.S. from Maine to Louisiana.
Eng earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology (environmental tract) from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Eng is Chairperson of the GreenLAVA SIG for LAVA.org. He is also a current member of both the Men’s Guild for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the Yale Science and Engineering Association.